time that I climbed to the summit of Brown Clee, the higher
of the two Clee Hills and the highest point in the English Midlands,
was on the morning of the new millennium – 1st January 2000. I
had lived on the lower flanks of the hill for a couple of years, but
for one reason or another had never yet made it to the very top. This
seemed like an auspicious day to take a bird’s-eye view of the
lie of the land.
Not yet knowing the best route, I struggled up the steep north shoulder
of the hill, following what I thought was a footpath but which soon
vanished under a thick crop of shin-tugging bracken. Before long the
multiple-dished telecoms mast on the summit came into view, set among
spoilheaps on the far side of a stretch of brown heather-covered bog.
There was nothing remotely pretty about the
but the surrounding views were satisfying enough, with distant hills
receding in all directions.
Not long after I reached the mast, the cloud dropped and the summit
was shrouded in whiteness. Opting for an easier path down I followed
a tarmac road, used by telecoms engineers, which led down a steep former
incline railway line through a plantation of conifers. On either side
of the road at the top of the hill were deep quarry pits, just visible
in the fog, grassed-over spoilheaps and the gaunt ruins of former quarry
buildings – a stone crusher, a tarmac plant, a locomotive shed
and other structures, all roofless, their reinforced concrete frames
gaping open at the sky like primed mantraps. The sense of desolation
It was also a revelation. I had no idea of the existence of these remains
on the top of my own hill. Industrial ruins are generally not tourist
sights – unlike, say, the ruins of medieval castles or abbeys
– and the remains on Brown Clee are neither listed in guidebooks
nor signposted from the road. Even the footpaths up the hill are poorly
marked. These ruins are rarely discussed, and they remain largely unknown,
forgotten, I suspect, even by local people.
This moves me, because it means that an entire episode of large-scale
human intervention in the landscape is drifting into oblivion. Men came
here, set up buildings and machinery, blasted out massive pits, broke
stone, laboured for much of their lives. Many were injured by flying
stone shards, some were killed. From the end of the 19th century to
the middle of the 20th, this was a place of activity and noise, with
the pounding of the crusher and the clattering of the railway trucks.
Eventually the quarries closed, the railway was dismantled, the buildings
collapsed, and the spoilheaps grassed over. The hilltop reverted to
silence. Given a bit more time, the visible ruins will disappear altogether,
leaving nothing but buried traces for archaeologists to pick over.
When I climbed Brown Clee that day, I was already involved in photographing
man-made features of the rural landscape. For my book The
Human Landscape, I made images across Britain of functional
everyday structures – typically derelict or abandoned –
which seemed to symbolise the ubiquity but also the transience of human
impact on the land. A few of my early photographs from the Clee Hills
made it into that collection.
But as I looked out over the bleak terrain at the top of the hill, it
struck me that the Clee Hills provided everything that I had been seeking
elsewhere – a metaphor, in landscape, for the passage of time
and the impermanence of human endeavour. The realisation mirrored a
process that often happens when I am taking photographs. I can be struggling
with an image, framing and reframing it, hunting for a way to make the
image speak, until I give up, take the camera off the tripod and turn
around. And there I find the really telling image. It was lying right
behind me all along.
South Shropshire is a landscape of wooded, pastoral
hills, and from any distance Brown Clee appears no different from any
of the other hills in the surrounding region. Only the overgrown concrete
footings of the old limestone works at Cockshutford,
one of the tiny hamlets clinging to the side of the hill, provide a
clue to the industrial character of the hourglass-shaped hill’s
twin summits, known as Abdon Burf (540m) and Clee Burf (510m). Thickly
forested on its eastern side, with open grazing to the west, the hill
can only be reached via several miles of single-track roads through
small, red-sandstone villages and fields of grazing sheep.
The landscape around Brown Clee seems the epitome of remote ‘unspoiled’
English countryside, and it is almost impossible now to imagine the
din and bustle of the area in the early decades of the 20th century.
Abdon was once known locally as the ‘miners’
village’ because of the number of inhabitants engaged in that
industry, but it is now no more than a tiny farming hamlet. I must have
driven through the village over a hundred times without ever seeing
a single person on the road or working in adjacent fields.
Nothing could be more different than the atmosphere around Titterstone
Clee, Brown Clee’s southern neighbour. Despite being the lower
of the two hills by a few metres, it is far better known and is sometimes
referred to simply as ‘Clee Hill’. Titterstone has a more
distinctive shape than Brown Clee, its peak (533m)
crowned by golf-ball and mushroom radars visible from ten miles away
in almost every direction. Titterstone is also more accessible than
Brown Clee. The main road east from South Shropshire’s market
town, Ludlow – heading to Worcester, Birmingham and beyond –
runs up over the southern flank of the hill, and it is possible to drive
right to the summit, past anomalous red-brick Victorian terraces built
for quarry workers at Dhustone, to a pot-holed
car park amid spoilheaps and ruined quarry buildings at the top.
Titterstone is industrial to the core, and doesn’t try to hide
it. Coal mining and quarrying were carried out here more extensively,
and for much longer, than on Brown Clee, and the hill’s windswept,
virtually treeless plateau is scarred everywhere by spoilheaps and slagheaps,
capped shafts, old quarries, pitted dirt roads and the derelict remains
of industrial buildings. The little settlement of Dhustone even takes
its name from the type of stone quarried on the hill.
Most of the industrial remains are 19th and 20th century but, as on
Brown Clee, medieval and post-medieval coal-mining ‘bell-pits’
– so-called because of the shape they take on following collapse
– bear witness to the length of the industrial history of the
two hills. Indeed, the Clee Hills are the only English hills marked
on the 13th century Mappa Mundi, Britain’s earliest world
map, attesting no doubt to the national importance of their minerals
even then. The map is now housed in Hereford Cathedral, some 30 miles
south of the Clee Hills, but historians think it was probably made on
the other side of the country in Lincolnshire. On one part of Titterstone,
quarrying continues to the present day in a large pit managed by Hanson
plc (formerly by ARC). Its towering crusher buildings are visible from
the main road over the hill.
At the highest point of the road stands Clee Hill
village, a settlement that grew with the quarries in
the early decades of the 20th century. With its non-local, semi-urban
style of architecture, the village looks like it could belong to almost
any industrialised area of Britain. It is a striking anomaly within
the wider local landscape. Clee Hill people have always held themselves
apart, until fairly recently speaking a unique dialect, and even now
tending to stay in the village where they were born. Elsewhere in Shropshire,
Clee Hill has a reputation for being a bit rough, largely undeserved
not helped by the litter of burnt-out cars and
caravans that seem a constant feature of the muddy
former railway line at the back of the village and among the spoilheaps
a short distance
Clee Hill lies only four miles from Ludlow, one of the favoured new
destinations for downshifting city-dwellers with idealised expectations
of rural England. And there is no doubt that many local people, and
not just the incomers, regard Titterstone as a bit of an eyesore, somehow
frightening with its industrial ruins, unkempt boggy plateau and endless
winter fogs. Yet for me, this quality of desertion is what lends Titterstone
its powerful appeal. As on neighbouring Brown Clee, the atmosphere of
a place where time has moved on is almost tangible – the hill
is cloaked in the kind of echoing silence that enfolds you when the
circus has left town.
of other people is one of the defining characteristics of a visit to
either of the Clee
Hills. In all the times I have walked the hills with my camera, I have
rarely met more than one
other walker, maybe a couple, or occasionally someone on horseback.
Just as often, I see no-one
But what you do find on the Clee Hills are the traces of people who
have been there not long before, but have since moved on. You come across
piles of logs left by forestry workers on Brown Clee; or ‘Keep
Out’ signs on Titterstone shot up by local lads with air rifles;
or burnt-out cars tipped into the old quarry pools
or hollows; or the remains of campfires near the summits of each hill
– each one of these marks on the landscape surviving a short while
after the people who made them have gone, but each one itself destined
to be swept away in time.
One afternoon I photographed an unwanted caravan
tucked into a fold between spoilheaps above Clee Hill village. Six months
later it was smashed to pieces by vandals. A fragile sheep
shed on Brown Clee, banged together out of corrugated iron fixed
to the wheelbase of an old quarry cart, must have survived in that state
for years by the time I approached it one September day with my camera.
The following winter it was blown apart in New Year gales.
But if none of these structures lasts forever, at least some man-made
features of the landscape are replaced when they rot away. The ‘tree
post’ near Random Farm on Titterstone, known locally as the
‘Three-Forked Pole’, supposedly marks the meeting point
of three parishes on the top of the hill. Every 30 years or so the pole
decays and a new one is put in its place. No one knows when the first
pole was erected although photographs record one early replacement ceremony
in the 1920s. The pole is said to be a magnet for walkers with some
knowledge of the hill, but I have never yet seen anyone near it; only
a slow-moving hill pony that came to inspect what was going on when
I erected my tripod there, and turned its head to the side in a magnificent
gesture of indifference just as I depressed the shutter release.
The history of human intervention in the landscape of the Clee Hills
begins, of course, long before the industrial and medieval periods,
and one of the earliest structures to survive is the Iron Age hillfort
of Nordy Bank on Brown Clee, its deep ditches
and grassed-over ramparts eerily foreshadowing the quarry pits and spoilheaps
that would be created elsewhere on the Clee Hills some 2,500 years later.
When we think of historic remains, we tend to think first of this type
of ancient monument or of ruined buildings – as if only the most
permanent type of man-made structure qualifies as worthy of record.
But often I find more ephemeral remains more evocative as symbols of
the passage of time. Take the tatty white signpost
at the top of the Brown Clee incline railway, no longer carrying any
form of notice, mute now, its paint flaking into the grass. What did
the sign say? What warning or instruction did it once give? Nobody that
I have asked has any idea. Its purpose has been served and yet the signpost
Equally moving, for me, is the stand of mature chestnut
trees now swamped by the conifers
of Brown Clee’s commercial forest. Once these trees stood in open
air by a stone field wall at the edge of a pasture. Now, as one era
has been overtaken by another, their twisting limbs reach up
out of their conifer prison towards the only light they have left –
a tiny window that lies directly overhead.
Sometimes the most evocative landscapes are those – like battlefields,
for instance – where a traumatic event has happened that has left
no trace, just memories echoing in the silence. At the summit of Brown
Clee lie a number of strangely picturesque pools, still waters with
tiny boating jetties, fringed by reeds with a backdrop of deciduous
trees. Under the still surface of one of them, Boyne
Water, lies the engine of a World War II bomber that hit the ground
in fog, bounced, and plunged into the pool; one of several aircraft,
both Allied and German, that crashed on the hill. The engine was never
dredged out and lies there still, entombed in mud.
If the landscapes
of the Clee Hills evoke a sense of the brevity of life, it is because
everywhere, sadly, they contain the signs of death – the death
of buildings and industrial cultures; the death of people, the airmen
killed during the war; the death of cars wrecked and burned by joy-riders
on Titterstone; and the death of sheep, poor sickly beasts left to fend
for themselves, slumping down in illness to die alone on the hillside.
skeleton that I photographed, intact and weathered clean, seemed
to have been ignored even by scavenging animals, an image of perfect
abandonment. Others I have found half-rotted, trapped in cattle-grids
or left out in the open, eyes pecked out, limbs and shredded fleece
lying separated from the rest of the body in ghastly images of desolation.
On one summer-evening walk up to the old Abdon Burf quarries with a
local historian, we found a pheasant stuck fast, wings flapping, in
a tar pool that had been left there when the tarmac plant was dismantled
in the 1940s. There was nothing to be done but wring the poor bird’s
neck. Other hill farmers have tales of larger animals, sheep and even
ponies, caught and killed in the tar pools from time to time.
So for all the stillness and silence of the Clee Hills, there is inevitably
also a certain menace about them, a threat – something I thought
I saw clearly when I photographed a young sheep,
just a few months old, teetering precariously on the rim of a disused
quarry on Clee Burf. Perhaps it is just me, with the sentiments of a
townie, but generally the sheep and ponies
on the Clee Hills seem always mournful; out in the cold every month
of the year, munching on thin grass between seas of heather and bracken
and the scattered detritus of the hills’ industrial past.
These images of the Clee Hills form a melancholy portfolio, undoubtedly
reflecting my own vision of the world and not, by any means, an impartial
documentary record of the Clee Hills landscape. There will be many people
who love the hills for quite different reasons from those that attract
me. For them, my photographs will perhaps strike a false note.
But melancholy is a bittersweet emotion – it is not the same as
‘depressing’. In mourning for our losses, for the inexorable
passage of time and the brevity of human life, we become more intensely
aware of the wonder of human existence and its fragility. I sense melancholy
everywhere I walk on the Clee Hills, and that is why I have grown to
love them far more intensely than the innumerable prettier places that
can be found in the surrounding countryside.